The meta-organisational capacity of lures

Sianne Ngai’s concept of minor aesthetic categories was developed to think about “aesthetic experiences grounded in equivocal affects”. I worked to think through the concept of ‘meta’ as it circulates in popular culture as a similar minor aesthetic category. Like Ngai’s three examples — the cute, the zany, and the interesting — ‘meta’ is characterised by an inherent affective contradiction of both embracing facts or information as providing answers while at the same time multiplying the conditions of possibility for asking questions. ‘Meta’ does not describe objects or qualities of objects, but the distinct modalities of aesthetic engagement with para-texts and relations of engagement themselves. At stake is the logistics of culture and the circulation of discourse.

The cultural industry has fully embraced this mode of participation. Their role is to facilitate the production of centers of fixation or ‘lures’ around which fans organise. Of critical importance here is the excess of information or content, as David Turner argues in a piece on the transformation of music fandom, “With a surplus of music available, the “community” itself, or rather the sense of oneself as participant, is increasingly the point”.

The market effects of the blockbuster can be repeated, but only via the orchestration of fans from the bottom up. Saturation marketing does not work. Manipulating hype cycles without substantial pay off in the form of participatory listening also does not work. Repeating the distinction in Bennet and Segerberg’s work between collective and connective action, there is meta-detective work operating on a connective level, rather than collective level. To return to Turner:

The connection that fans in decades past built through purchasing music is now better observed through YouTube or even Instagram comments — fan engagement is connected to how much time one is willing to spend hunting for leaks or standing in line for a pop-up shop. The ideal fan doesn’t pay for a singular release, but instead spreads memes and creates enough online noise to keep their favorite artist trending: Recently the indie rock artist Mitski reposted memes in the run-up to her latest album, Be The Cowboy, to Instagram; fans returned the favor, throwing the hashtag #BeTheCowboy across social media. As the industry has monetized fan dynamics, moving toward participation as product, the perceived value of music has changed: it’s less about the artist, or even the artist’s relationship to their fans, than “engagement” itself.

Towards a post-normative communication and media studies

Twitter has announced a call for research submissions that helps them “identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.” I expressed my skepticism about this on Facebook and so I am writing up some notes here.

‘Conversations’ are one way to examine interactions on social media. We looked at conversations as the unit of analysis in our Turnbull paper due out in MIA I think in a few months (based on our ANZCA paper). A simple point to make is that the ‘public conversation’ is not the same thing as ‘conversations on Twitter’ or even ‘Twitter publics’. Sure, there are conversations that happen entirely on Twitter (say a Trump tweet and reaction and cross talk), but these are not very useful as the basis of assessing public conversations. How Twitter users produce openings on other spaces, so that the circulation of discourse is necessarily cross-platform. The philosophy behind Cortico’s general approach looks interesting, but Twitter and Cortico will need to partner with other platforms.

There are broadly two ways to map the circulation of discourse. The first is derived from Bourdieu and maps a ‘field’ based on the social interactions between actors and the analytical construction of what is valued in the field (doxa). I think this is inherently flawed because of the reliance on a notion of faith (as in good or bad faith). Bourdieu’s Manet lectures are clear on this. The second is derived from Foucault and maps the discursive regularities between statements and the analytical construction is regarding the conditions of possibility based on ‘authority’ and composition of power relations (dispositif). What Foucault broadly called ‘eventalization’ (only ever in interviews, so the method has to be reverse engineered across a range of works). Interestingly, network graphing techniques seem to be aligned with ‘eventalization’ until you realise that they mostly rely on the providence of digital objects and platform-based network relations between them. There have been few attempts to map networks of discourse in spite of the platforms as this multiplies the work exponentially.

Analysing discourse in terms of the ‘health’ of conversations assumes a normative dimension that I think smuggles in assumptions about the good faith of actors. There are two problems here. First, analytics are unlikely to indicate how a particular user is ‘blinkered’, and therefore has an extremely constrained degree of freedom (in the systems theory sense), what Guattari called a low co-efficient of transversality or Warner might talk about in terms of the character of reflexivity. They will instead show how such blinkered users belong to tribes, because of the discursive coherency and affective congruence of discourse. So what? Second, Twitter does not appear to want to operate upon the good or bad faith of actors, and therefore take obvious steps to reduce the weaponised use of the platform (such as reduced functionality for new accounts until thresholds of participation are passed, such as number of followers or interactions). Getting over the normative assumptions about the good faith of users is an important first step.

Refugees and the Discourse of Compassion

The image of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore has had a dramatic impact on the character of the refugee debate in Australia and elsewhere. Most responses from across the political spectrum have recognised the need for greater compassion in rethinking policy. Radical conservatives like Australian politician Cory Bernardi or media commentator Andrew Bolt have isolated themselves to a few limited talking points as I discuss below. What is clear is that the image of the little boy being picked up delicately by the soldier has managed to change the character of the debate so that instead of debating whether or not these people are ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ they have become subject to our compassion.

In media studies we call this a shift in the ‘discourse’, which means that there has been change in the normal social expectations that people have about what can and can not be said. Bernardi has clearly misunderstood the broader context of this shift and is still attempting to address a tiny minority of radical conservatives. The political talking points are now about the appropriate measure of response rather than whether or not those escaping trauma are refugees.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was attempting  to express his political party’s old policy position in terms of the new discourse as recently as four days ago. He stated that:

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East.

This is an attempt to frame the current policy in such a way that it responds to the overwhelming demand for compassion. The response to Abbott’s claim was swift. Refugee advocates had used legalistic mechanisms to try to force reluctant Australian governments to take more refugees. Abbott was responding to this version of the refugee discourse. Less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement. Abbott had failed to respond to the new discourse of compassion, which was not couched in a legalistic discourse.

The Australian government has today responded to the current refugee crisis by increasing the intake of refugees and funding contributing to the overall global cause. Abbott has changed the way he talks about the refugees, he has shifted from a legalistic discourse to a discourse of compassion. Note the change in the way he talks about those working to escape trauma for example (from various reports):

This is a very significant increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and it’s a generous response to the current emergency.

Our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.

I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.

It is a response that is now framed in the discourse of compassion.

Media Events as Focusing Events

The power of a single image to cut through and develop into a much bigger media event was explored by McKenzie Wark in his book Virtual Geography (here is a super-condensed version). Wark develops a notion of weird global media events based on what he calls media vectors. Wark’s basic point is that as images circulate across media vectors they  develop into a media event. This is different to the other established definition of a media event organised around ‘mega-events’ that are produced and made for broadcast television (Dayan & Katz 1991). The vector-based media events are far more common now in our era of social media and the power of social media to draw our attention to sinsular images.

Aylan Kurdi’s image becoming a media event is an example of what John Kingdon calls a ‘focusing event’ in the terrain of public policy making. Focusing events are those experiences or occurences that force politicians to attend to them. Kingdon suggests there are two types of focusing events. The first is premised on personal experiences made by policy makers. The second is the impact of powerful symbols. In this case it is an example of both, as expressed by Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones:

You forget how light children are, you forget how small they actually are as they grow. And it’s one of those things that you just saw this poor, lifeless little – lifeless little tot and that really does chill you straight through.

From Borders to Traumas

A clear way the discourse of refugees has shifted is in the terms of the way the crisis is defined. The legalistic way to approach refugees is to define them in terms of national borders and whether or not refugees are fleeing a geopolitical conflict. Radical conservative Cory Bernardi does this, as does conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt. In a recent column, Bolt expresses this conservative talking point about borders in terms of the pursuit of dental health services:

So … what exactly was he “fleeing” when he paid a people smuggler thousands of dollars to bring his family — without safety vests — to Greece, to join that irresistible army of illegal immigrants now smashing through Europe’s borders?

Tima Kurdi explained… “The situation is that Abdullah does not have any teeth…

“So I been trying to help him fix his teeth. But is gonna cost me 14,000 and up to do it …

“Actually my dad, he come up with the idea, he said to me, ‘I think if they go to Europe for his case and for our future, I think he should do that, and then we’ll see if he can fix his teeth’.

“And that’s what I did three weeks ago.” She sent her brother the money for people smugglers.

Now, it is terrible to have no teeth. Awful to be poor. A misery to have your children denied chances.

But can the West really take in not just real refugees, but the Third World’s poor as well, including those in search of better dentistry?

Kurdi’s teeth were damaged because abuse and torture at the hands of both ‘sides’ of the Syrian conflict.

Originally born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish city of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar-al Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria’s brutal civil war. At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Islamic State takeover of Kobane, he was arrested by Isil fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth.

He said he then applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to try to take the family to Europe. His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being caught and turned back by coast guard vessels.

Radical conservatives are choosing to understand the tragedy of the Kurdi family in terms of the previous legalistic discourse of refugees fleeing across borders from a specific conflict in a geopolitical location. They are choosing to believe that the Kurdi family’s trauma somehow ended once they entered Turkey. The discourse of compassion is organised around the trauma of refugees, not their geopolitical location. The aim of refugee policy should be to reduce the terrible trauma that refugees experience, not perpetuate it.

Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub

Students in my graduate unit Philosophies of Communication Technologies and Change (part of our Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement) are producing simple lists of tweets.

Some students are using Outwit Hub to generate these lists as this is what I have used since 2012. I have created a guide “Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub worksheet” for my students but others may also find it useful.

Scraping the results from a Twitter ‘advanced search’ allows you create an archive of tweets without the limitations of the API. It is only useful for relatively small sets that have less than 3,200 tweets per day as you can query Twitter for all tweets for a given hashtag per day.

The lists of tweets shall be used for the purpose of carrying out sophisticated analyses of the ‘circulation of discourse’:

Writing to a public helps to make a world, insofar as the object of address is brought into being partly by postulating and characterizing it. This performative ability depends, however, on that object’s being not entirely fictitious–not postulated merely, but recognized as a real path for the circulation of discourse. That path is then treated as a social entity. (Warner 2002: 64)

The character of this discourse will depend on the stakeholder publics they (or their organisations) wish to engage with and so on.


Economy of Culture

Boris Groys’ On the New would’ve productively informed my essay on the how the media event of True Detective could be understood as part of the revaluation of cultural values.  We are reading it as part of our aesthetics reading group. Groys wants to present an understanding of innovation and by ‘innovation’ he does not mean the Silicon Valley destructive innovation sense. Innovative theories or innovative art are not described and justified on the basis of signification to reality or truth but whether they are culturally valuable. He is drawing on Nietzsche’s conception of the revaluation of value. Page 12 of On the New:

The economy of culture is, accordingly, not a description of culture as a representation of certain extra-cultural economic constraints. Rather, it is an attempt to grasp the logic of cultural development itself as an economic logic of the revaluation of values.

I am enjoying Groys’ non-market ‘economic’ interpretation of Nietzschean truth.  He develops an economic  conception of Nietzsche’s non-moral version of value without turning to Marxist conceptions of value that would position cultural value as a consequence of the social relation between capital and labour power.

In my True Detective essay I develop a notion of ‘meta’ so as to grapple with the epistemological displacement that occurs in the midst of a revaluation of values. I call this a ‘liminal epistemology’, which has been commodified as ‘discovery’ in contemporary ‘apps’ that assist users access various kinds of cultural texts (music, written texts, phatic/social media texts, etc). The media event of True Detective (as compared to the televisual text) is interesting as it dramatises the ‘detective work’ of this liminal epistemology itself. From the introduction of my True Detective essay:

If nothing else, True Detective clearly triggers meta-detective work by the audience. The show, its inter-textual references, and non-diegetic exegetical explanations of these references produced new edges of surprise and a new sense of expectation. For example, there is a folding of the crime fiction genre into existentialist horror and a topological transformation wrought upon both. Both genres frame a passage of discovery by the characters and audience. “Discovery” has become a buzzword in user-centred design to describe the design of platforms that assist users discover appropriate content, and this refers to the way users willingly embrace the delegated agency of “smart” interfaces. The liminal epistemology of discovery in meta-stable media assemblages pose answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked. The question isn’t simply asked of the characters of the show, but of the entire event itself as it repeated different elements of genres in different ways; in effect, the audience carries out meta-detective work.

The reason why I am excited about Groys’ work is that he has already isolated a similar problematic with regards to the revaluation of values. His focus so far is not animated by the same concerns as I am, but there is a similar problematic. I make it very clear that what I found the most interesting about the True Detective media event is that it is part of a broader constellation of cultural texts that are all, in different ways, working through this revaluation of values. From the introduction of my essay:

In the final section I develop meta in terms of what Sianne Ngai (2012) calls a minor aesthetic category, and in this case what characterises meta as a minor aesthetic category is the way any text, object or event that dramatises the suspension of cultural values. In Simondon’s terms, meta is an aesthetic category that refers to works that in some way repotentialise values that serve as the “preindividual norms” of value in a state of meta-stability ready to be potentialised in a multiplicity of ways (Combes 2013: 64). As I shall explore in detail, True Detective dramatises a conflict between systems of belief and cultural value through the figures of the two main characters, Rust and Marty. In this way, “meta” signals a threshold of value (or what Nietzsche (1968) calls “transvaluation”) more often associated with nihilism.

I look forward to reading the rest of On the New.